Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Contemplating Love, Friendship, Technology and "Before Midnight" in Tuscany

Wow. That was the best word to describe my reaction to seeing Lori in Piazza del Campo in Siena, our first meeting since she'd visited me in Bangkok one and a half years earlier. I wasn't shocked because she looked so great -- I'd seen all of her recent photos on Facebook -- but rather because I felt as if we’d spent an entire afternoon together just last week. We immediately launched into our old routine, telling bits and pieces of stories until a tangent sent us in a new direction, laughing at things that no one else (including Lori's husband John) would understand, completing each other's thoughts, and mentally predicting them.

They say the mark of true-blue friendship is that after a considerable lapse of time, you can meet again and pick up right where you left off. What Lori and I have is certainly true blue, but I wonder how much our ongoing close friendship and its endurance over time and space owe to technology, social media and Facebook.

When I left the New York City in 2006, before the invasion of social media and the Facebook revolution, Lori and I kept in touch regularly by email. Our missives to each other painted broad strokes of our respective lives, and we occasionally indulged in long existential conversations like we used to in the old days, only with me in Buenos Aires and Lori in New Jersey or New York, they were in the form of monologues delivered via the written word, not the back-and-forth bouncing of ideas during downtime at work, in taxis on the way home, on my living room sofa on Saturday afternoon, at Bar Six for Sunday brunch, or on the telephone during the Super Bowl.

That face-to-face (or voice-to-ear) interaction is where we really get to the core of who people are, as we observe their process of realization, changing their mind, or refusing to. With email, we have time to carefully edit our thoughts, controlling how we present them so that people see -- or read -- what we want them to.

With modern technology -- Facebook, instant messaging, Skype video -- person-to-person interaction becomes less rehearsed, more real. Our long-distance friends can get an undistorted, un-airbrushed view of us -- literally, on Skype -- without our make-up on. Meanwhile, we can keep track of all the minutiae of our loved ones' everyday lives, sharing tidbits that we wouldn't necessarily think to include in an email. Sometimes it feels like we're actually in the same room.

The benefits of technology can't be overstated in regards to friendship, but what about love?

One of the first things Lori and I discussed was Before Midnight, which we'd both seen and loved for the thoughts it provoked. Interestingly, had Lori, a dedicated reader of my blog posts, not somehow overlooked the one on Before Midnight, she wouldn't have had to ask if I'd seen it. She already would have known how much I loved it, thanks to the power of social media.

We broached some of the intriguing ideas in the film, and she mentioned the young couple in the extended lunch scene and how they were like a 2013 version of Celine and Jesse in 1994, only with this century's technology, an idea that I'd mentioned in my blog post. Indeed, they were the twentysomething Celine and Jesse, but while serendipity brought them together, too, technology was helping to keep them together -- at least for now.

Had Celine and Jesse had cell phones and had been able to text each other that day they were supposed to meet in 1994, who knows what direction their relationship would have taken after Before Sunrise? The film's two sequels might have gone so differently, or perhaps not at all. They may have burned brightly as a couple for a while and exploded in a matter of weeks, months, or well before Before Sunset, the 2003 sequel to Before Sunrise.

I've already mentioned the benefits of technology on friendship, but its effect on love and romance is trickier territory. Social media enables us to keep in touch -- if only virtually -- but people tend to use it to communicate in soundbites, often in 140 characters or less. How much can you truly know someone if that's how you are interacting most of the time when you are apart. When you're together, in-depth communication might be backburnered because technology has fooled you into thinking you already know everything you need to know.

Do couples have the sort of revealing, explosive conversations that Celine and Jesse had in the second and third Before films on social media? Do they have them when they're logged on to Facebook or even chatting by video on Skype? Those are the sort of warts and all that show up when we're face to face, getting into each other's, not when we're online or texting, talking in short sentences, not paragraphs.

A film like 1998's You've Got Mail, with its AOL-related gimmick, might seem quaint by today's communication standards, but it was the first mainstream movie to explore love and technology in an in-depth way. I'm convinced that Tom Hanks' and Meg Ryan's characters are still living happily ever after, but that's probably because they spent most of the movie getting casually acquainted online while unknowingly (at least for Ryan's romantic-comedy heroine) truly getting to know each other – warts and all, mostly warts – in person? I imagine that they had so much more to talk about after the credits rolled, having battling each other in person for close to two hours (in real time), than they would have had they finally met as near-virtual strangers at the end.

When you're hooking up online, breaking up by text, and having sex on Skype, what's left to say when you're face to face? No wonder so many 24-year-olds are conversationally challenged. I'm not saying that young love has less of a chance of surviving today than it did in the mid '90s, but it's really missing out. Those beats of old-fashioned love -- spending hours on the phone, writing letters, receiving letters, longing for each other long-distance, being overjoyed when you finally reunite -- beat anything you can do today on your iPad or smart phone.

For me, it's so much better to have loved and lost that way, than to have never loved and lost that way at all.
Post a Comment